Three Approaches to Preventing Climate Displacement

Build Healthy Places
Oct 21 · 9 min read
Photo/ DVIDSHUB

by Liz Duffrin

Cities and states are taking it upon themselves to address the risk to low-income communities of climate-related displacement.

Little Haiti in Miami, a low-income neighborhood north of downtown, is rich in Caribbean culture, family-owned restaurants, and colorful street murals yet poor in amenities that would ordinarily attract real estate developers. But in a city vulnerable to sea level rise caused by a heating planet, one feature has helped Little Haiti become one of the nation’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods — higher elevation.

Little Haiti and four other low-income, high-elevation neighborhoods in Miami became a national symbol of “climate gentrification” last year, a term Harvard University researchers coined in a report focused on Miami-Dade County.

Being displaced from the high ground is an unusual problem for a low-income community, notes Lara Hansen, chief scientist and executive director at EcoAdapt. Usually it is low-lying, less valuable property where low-income neighborhoods develop, making them susceptible to flooding with the changing climate. So Little Haiti and its neighbors are the “exception that proves the rule,” the rule being that “exposure to climate change plus sensitivity minus adaptive capacity equals your vulnerability,” she said.

Climate change will affect everyone, but low-income people are most vulnerable.

Photo/ Bart Everson

In other words, climate change will affect everyone, but low-income people are most vulnerable, whether to more extreme heat, increased pollution, rising insurance and utility costs, or the challenges of recovering from natural disasters or coping with displacement. In the face of federal inaction on climate change, some cities, states, and housing developers are taking matters into their own hands to protect low-income communities from climate changes already underway. Below we outline three strategies communities are adopting to mitigate the effects of a warming planet.

“We have an affordable housing crisis unparalleled in our country’s history coupled with rising natural hazards and extreme risk to low-income communities,” said Laurie Schoeman, senior program director at Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. “We’re in a moment of crisis.”

1: Preserve Affordable Housing by Making It More Climate-Resilient

Preserving affordable housing is an often-overlooked strategy to keep neighborhoods affordable, and a strategy that will be even more important as the climate changes. The housing that low-income people live in is often poorly constructed, placing them at greater risk in extreme weather. Therefore, in addition to building more and better affordable housing, cities should work to upgrade their housing stock — and create incentives for homeowners to do the same. Enterprise is one mission-driven housing developer building climate-resilient homes. It also provides guidelines and training through its Green Communities program to help multi-unit housing owners understand and mitigate their climate-change-related risks, such as extreme heat, flooding, and high winds.

Residents are “the eyes and ears” of communities. “They can help us understand the best solutions.”

“We don’t want these hazards to put an owner out of operation because then residents lose their homes,” Schoeman explained. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Schoeman stresses the importance of getting community input on mitigation and disaster planning. Residents are “the eyes and ears” of communities, she said, and “they can help us understand the best solutions.”

Photo/ Steven Depolo

When Enterprise worked with New Jersey Housing Authority on a plan to improve a 300-unit property that flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, resident leaders were invited to tour the site alongside engineers. “We got information from those community members that we never would have gotten from a FEMA map and that our engineers never would have gotten from soil borings,” she said, such as the locations of frequent sewer back-ups, depressions that frequently flooded, and where water coming up from underground was undermining structures.

2: Take a Comprehensive Approach to Creating Resilient Affordable Housing

Some locations are taking a comprehensive approach to making affordable housing more climate-resilient. New Ecology, Inc., based in Boston, is working with the State of Delaware to map all the affordable housing the state has subsidized and do a climate-change risk assessment, such as the ability of housing to withstand flooding, high wind, extreme heat, and power outages, said Edward Connelly, New Ecology’s president.

But while “pockets of developers all over the country” are making it their mission to build climate-resilient housing, he said, policies requiring that builders meet high standards for climate resilience are rare. As a result, Connelly said, “only a select few places are trying to build more resilient housing at a fast pace — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York State, California, and Seattle.”

Policies requiring that builders meet high standards for climate resilience are rare.

As contractors and architects gain experience with new building techniques, the cost of climate-resilient housing is falling, with recent projects costing only about 3 to 9 percent more than standard construction, he said. Looking ahead, the extra cost is a worthwhile investment, he believes, but given the immediate affordable housing shortage, “there’s the argument that we should use the money to build more units not just better units.”

And in some locations, mitigating risk from climate change simply isn’t cost-effective, he said, such as in Houston, where most affordable housing is located in flood plains, or in areas of California areas prone to wildfires, given the cost of fire-proofing homes. In such cases, relocation should be one of the solutions. But with so little affordable housing, he said, “you can’t just close down projects where people are living. So emergency preparedness is essential.”

Photo/ North Charleston

3: Mitigate Climate Risks with New Infrastructure while Preventing “Green Gentrification”

Infrastructure improvements to drain flood waters or protect properties from coastal sea surges is another strategy for making low-income communities more climate-resilient. Unfortunately, such improvements can also make the surrounding area more attractive to upper-income buyers and investors. Infrastructure intended to protect low-income people from flooding and improve quality of life can instead drive them out by raising rents and property taxes.

That’s what happened in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a predominantly African American neighborhood just east of downtown and the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. To stop damaging flooding, the city built a two-acre lake for stormwater detention surrounded by 17 acres landscaped with native plants from what had once been contaminated fields. Dedicated in 2011 as the Historic Fourth Ward Park, the project links to the Atlanta Beltline, a walking and biking trail converted from an old rail corridor. But in May 2019, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported skyrocketing home values, steep property tax increases, and rising gentrification due to the Beltline and its growing amenities, such as the Fourth Ward Park.

Photo/ romanlily

There are many examples of urban green infrastructure improvements that went hand-in-hand with displacement, said Helen Cole, a researcher from the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability in Spain. Cole is studying the extent to which urban greening projects encourage gentrification in 40 cities in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She points to the neighborhoods in West Dallas as well as Central Philadelphia as other examples of low-income, minority neighborhoods that received infrastructure to improve storm water management and prevent flooding only to see residents bought out or forced out by rising rents and property taxes.

Seattle is an example of a city that is working to improve green infrastructure while keeping low-income neighborhoods affordable. Seattle Public Utilities developed a plan to avoid displacing residents from the low-income, Hispanic neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown while it invests $100 million over the next 10 years to improve stormwater drainage along the Duawmish River, south of downtown. The industrial portion of South Park is the city’s lowest-lying area. Without better drainage and flood management strategies along portions of the riverfront, rainier weather and rising sea levels caused by climate change will inundate the area by 2100, said Ann Grodnik-Nagle, Seattle Public Utilities’ strategic advisor of climate adaptation.

The utility participated in a collaboration between 17 city departments and neighborhood residents, nonprofits, and businesses to create the Duawmish Valley Action Plan, released in 2018. The plan combines strategies for improving green infrastructure and resident health while preventing displacement. Building affordable housing and economic development, such as by maximizing local hiring for city projects, are among the anti-displacement strategies. One innovative program through the city’s Equitable Development Initiative is providing funding for a coalition of South Park and Georgetown residents to become affordable housing developers, Grodnik-Nagle said.

But sometimes, as may prove to be the case in fighting climate change itself, even promising, model solutions can come too late.

Barcelona Lab’s Helen Cole, whose study includes South Park, questions whether Seattle will be able to move fast enough to counteract the gentrification underway there. The city is currently working out the details of the size of the investment in affordable housing, the number of units, and how to fund those projects, according to Grodnik-Nagle.

“The process of building affordable housing is much slower than the process of building market rate housing,” Cole observed. Gentrification in South Park may be “inevitable because it hasn’t been acted on sooner, not because it couldn’t be prevented.”

Photo/ Payton Chung

Displacement’s Harmful Effects on Health and Well-being

Displacement, whether due to gentrification or relocation after a natural disaster, is associated with a host of problems for the most vulnerable low-income people forced to leave. One study, for instance, found that low-income Louisiana mothers displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were more likely to experience poor mental health after their move than those able to return to their communities. A study on the health effects of displacement show that compared with residents who stayed in gentrifying neighborhoods, those who moved to nongentrifying, poor neighborhoods had significantly higher rates of emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and mental health–related visits for about five years after displacement. Finally, a study of tenants displaced in gentrifying San Mateo County, California, found that one in three households experienced a period of homelessness.

On the flip side, a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that long-time residents of gentrifying neighborhoods, particularly children, benefited from the declining concentration of poverty and rising property values.

In Little Haiti, developers “get elderly people who aren’t market savvy to sign away their homes.”

But sometimes long-time home owners don’t benefit. In Little Haiti, developers “get elderly people who aren’t market savvy to sign away their homes,” said Adrian Madriz, executive director of SMASH (Struggle for Miami’s Affordable and Sustainable Housing). “We have residents who have developers knocking on their doors on an almost daily basis ready to get people to sign contracts.”

To prevent displacement, Miami is now working to combat both coastal flooding and climate gentrification. In November 2017, voters approved a $400 million bond to protect the city from sea level rise, with $100 million of that earmarked for affordable housing and $4 million to help low-income residents at risk of displacement due to high elevation fix up their homes, the Miami Herald reported. The city also passed a resolution last November to research gentrification accelerated by climate change and methods to stabilize property taxes in affected low-income neighborhoods and prevent displacement.

Gretchen Beesing, CEO of Catalyst Miami, calls those steps a move forward yet insufficient. “If they really want to stop on gentrification,” she said, “they’re going to need a more comprehensive set of interventions, including a community-driven development plan that takes climate considerations into account.”

There are many strategies a city can pursue to develop affordable housing in the face of climate change, she noted, such as creating a land bank to acquire vacant, abandoned, or foreclosed property or establishing a revolving loan fund that an intermediary can use to purchase land for the public good.

She sees the issue as a matter of political will. “If local governments really leverage the land they own and the resources they already have to provide affordable housing and community space, then higher-income people could come in and low-income people could stay there,” she said. “Unless local government becomes more aggressive, these communities are definitely going to gentrify over the next ten or twenty years.” And in a time of rising seas, the question is, where will the city’s most vulnerable go?


This article is part of Crosswalk Magazine, a gathering place for stories that illustrate the deep connection between health and place, from the Build Healthy Places Network.

Crosswalk Magazine

A gathering place for stories about the connection between health and place. Produced by the Build Healthy Places Network at www.BuildHealthyPlaces.org

Build Healthy Places

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By joining forces, community development and health professionals can have a more powerful impact. www.buildhealthyplaces.org

Crosswalk Magazine

A gathering place for stories about the connection between health and place. Produced by the Build Healthy Places Network at www.BuildHealthyPlaces.org

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